Consensus in Form and Spirit

Consensus in Form and Spirit


Decision-making by consensus, as it is practiced today, can be traced to two movements. One originated in the Quaker challenge to the authority of the state church in seventeenth- century England. The other sprang from research into the social psychology of groups undertaken by Kurt Lewin and his colleagues during the 1940’s and 50’s in the United States. Although their backgrounds were quite different, both movements fostered group cultures that valued direct participation, equality, and mutual respect. Serious controversy is the truest test of any system of governance. Majority rule democracy and consensus are fundamentally different in the way they conduct their deliberations when conflict surfaces.

Historically, our systems of making and applying laws developed in Western Europe. Struggles that once involved physical confrontation later became civil contests where advocates debated about what was true and fair. This style of conflict resolution sought to harness competitive behaviors within certain rules of order that would determine who had the right to dominate. In majority rule democracy, coalition-building is required only to the point where more than half the participants are in agreement. Some sort of enforcement agency may then be ‘legitimately’ used to ensure the compliance of those who do not support the majority position. When the stakes are high, the deliberations of majority rule organizations often resemble the battlefield scenes they were supposed to prevent. Allied groups entrench themselves to defend their positions, while trying to outmaneuver, disrupt or overwhelm their enemies. In this arena of ritualized combat, arguments and ideas are used as weapons. To be open to an opponent would be foolhardy.

In an organization governed by consensus, the participants have agreed that no action will be taken without mutual consent. Because coercive enforcement is not an option, members must resolve their problems by actively including one another in the search for solutions. Adversarial rhetoric and posturing are not appropriate—patience, flexibility, and a collaborative atmosphere are required. Without them, the group would be paralyzed by factionalism.

Majority rule group process may encourage both competitive and cooperative behaviors. In fact, the group’s effectiveness will be enhanced by statesmen and compromisers who communicate sensitively and who are skilled at coalition-building. In contrast, competitive actions are of little value to a consensus-oriented group—except to remind it that it is moving in a destructive direction. Participants who are proud of their skills in argumentation and debate may be unaware that such conduct, perfectly acceptable on the floor of Congress or in a courtroom, will actually cripple their organization’s ability to achieve consensus.

In Quaker practice, reverent mutual attentiveness permeates the meeting atmosphere, since the participants seek to appreciate a sense of the whole that is above and beyond any individual’s contribution. Kurt Lewin, a social scientist strongly committed to democratic ideals, stimulated his students in seminars that were collaborative, open, and free. Many of his associates went on to develop techniques of group facilitation that emphasized equality, creativity, and problem solving. The following is a generic interpretation of consensus that is consistent with both Quaker and secular models.


Cooperative Values. The dictionary defines a cooperative as an organization owned by and operating for the benefit of its members. To cooperate means to work together. Cooperation as a description of social relations is clarified when it is associated with values such as freedom and trust. Agreements that are made willingly, without being motivated by punishment or threat, reflect the essence of freedom. Trust exists when participants expect their relations to be honest and fair, not exploitative. Cooperation, freedom, and trust can be used as guiding concepts when evaluating the group’s performance. Some behaviors will advance these values, while others will not.

Mutual Responsibility for Communication Processes. Many interpersonal exchanges converge to produce the group’s climate. No individual creates the collective event. By what they say, by how they say it, and by what they passively accept, all participants share responsibility for determining whether the meeting atmosphere is cooperative or competitive. Mutual concern, openness, and risk-taking counteract fear and build trust. Questions, genuinely asked, or silence that allows a fresh start, can transform defensiveness and restore a collaborative focus. By devoting a portion of its energy to reflection and reevaluation, a group, like an individual, can learn from experience, change, and improve.

Affirming the Group Will. The goal of consensus is to reach a decision that is the most legitimate and unifying for the group at a particular point in time. When all points of view have been included in the deliberations and genuine efforts have been made to resolve all individual concerns, that decision is likely to be well-balanced and effective. Ultimately, however, there is no guarantee that consensus will produce a decision that will be objectively ‘correct’ or completely satisfying to everyone.

Withholding consent may be a way for an individual to slow the group process and to make it more inclusive and legitimate. This blocking of group action should not be confused with veto power that is exercised in balance-of-power type organizations. If withholding consent appears to be self-centered or lacking in principle, it creates a minority rule situation that undermines the group’s sense of fairness and trust.

When members give consent to a group policy, they need to believe certain things about the proposal itself and about the conduct of the deliberations that have taken place. When these beliefs are negative, withholding consent is appropriate, even when it may result in the frustration of others or in the discomfort of the person blocking. Listed below are the beliefs that would allow a participant to affirm a group decision along side those opposing beliefs that would prevent it. One belief in either category would be enough to support a person’s stance,




  1. There is sufficient support for this proposal.
  2. More effort probably will not result in a decision that has wider support.
  3. All concerns and opinions have been understood in a climate of mutual respect.
  4. This proposal is not so risky that the group would be unable to make adjustments or corrections if it failed.
  5. This proposal is in harmony with  the group’s core values and commitments.


  1. There is not sufficient support for this proposal.
  2. More effort probably would result in a decision that had wider support.
  3. All opinions and concerns have not been heard in a climate of mutual respect.
  4. This proposal is too risky.  The group would be unable to make adjustments or corrections if it failed.
  5. This proposal is not in harmony with the group’s core values and commitments.

Standing Aside. When someone has doubts about a proposal, but feels those reservations are not profound enough to block the organization from moving ahead, they may ‘stand aside’ by openly declaring their position and having it acknowledged by the meeting. This gesture of loyalty to the group simultaneously affirms personal conscience and integrity. It will be a difficult option for anyone who feels alienated or ignored.

Obligations of Persons Withholding Consent. Members should express their objections as clearly and as sensitively as they can. Privately, they must honestly ask themselves if they are delaying action out of concern for the whole group or out of self-centered pride. Additionally, they should show that they understand how their stance impinges on others by being willing to continue to communicate and work on the problem.

Obligations of Others to Persons Withholding Consent. A legitimate objection to a proposal, however disappointing, should be treated with respect rather than anger. It ought to call forth more communication and creativity from others, as well as a recognition that, in the long run, the group will gain unity and energy from the added work.

Failing to Reach Consensus. On complicated or controversial issues, groups will require skill, patience, and commitment to reach consensus. When those qualities are lacking due to inexperience, hostility, or the urgency of the situation, a crisis will exist.

Large, diverse groups will be vulnerable to such crises, and so will those whose members lack common bonds or a sense of shared fate. In some cases, failure to achieve consensus may indicate genuine, irreconcilable differences within the group. Ultimately, participants must decide individually whether they can achieve their goals more easily inside or outside the organization—individually or in cooperation with others.


Force—Intimidation—Threat. Influencing others by causing pain or loss, or threatening to do so, will produce ‘agreements’ which are not trustworthy, cooperative, or free.

Disrespect—Personal Hostility. Communication that implies the inferiority or unworthiness of one member suggests the superiority of another. It destroys trust by hampering the group’s ability to offer fair and equal treatment. It also invites defensiveness and retaliation. Expressions of disgust or contempt can take the forms of name calling, sarcasm, or belittling. Treating adult colleagues as if they were children or servants signals disrespect. Equally insulting are attempts to interrupt, ignore, or distract attention from a member who has the floor. If a mistake has been made, a personal attack will not correct it.

Impatience. When the group confronts a difficult problem, there is a danger that a highly energized faction will try to advance its solution by limiting deliberations and by pressing for approval too rapidly. Some concerns might not receive the attention they deserve. This pressure, even if it does not incite a block, could lead to an agreement that was less comprehensive and less strongly supported.

Adversarial Rhetoric. Competitive debating or arguing from positions undermines the cooperative exchange of ideas that is necessary for finding common ground. The emphasis on winning a debate may encourage the participants to exaggerate or distort contrasting points of view.

Deception—Manipulation. Withholding needed information or creating a false impression might give someone an advantage in a competitive situation. In the context of cooperation, it is an unacceptable tactic of control that provokes anger, fear, and mistrust when it comes to light.

Covertly Withholding Consent. When the group atmosphere is hostile, some may be afraid to publicly withhold consent. They may be wary of embarrassment, ostracism, or reprisals, or they may want to avoid an open defeat. Their withholding of consent might be expressed secretly by not attending meetings, by ignoring agreements, by withdrawing energy from the group, or by harboring resentment towards opponents.

Egocentrically Withholding Consent. This may occur for several reasons:

  • Some may believe that consensus process is centered on protecting the individual rather than on maximizing group cohesion. They may presume that they have the right to veto any proposal that does not appeal to them personally, without regard to group values or the consequences for others.
  • Unresolved past conflicts with certain individuals or resentment over previous decisions made by the group could provoke a person’s resistance.
  • In a competitive climate, there is a danger that members will identify themselves stubbornly with a particular point of view. Changing position could then be defined as an admission of error or as cowardice, not as a sign of flexibility or as a concern for others.
  • Rather than accepting other opinions as resources for the group to work with, members may experience them as attacking or denying their own reality, and retaliate against this ‘insult’ by blocking.
  • As a stance against authority and conformity in general, an individual may prefer to be seen as a skeptic, heretic, or maverick– someone capable of resisting group pressure.


Correction without Punishment. When someone behaves aggressively or acts outside the spirit of consensus and others respond with anger or contempt, the problem is compounded. Passively ignoring inappropriate behavior is also destructive because it fails to reaffirm cooperative values, leaving the group’s standards in doubt. Simply avoiding highly charged issues for the sake of ‘peace’ cripples the group’s ability to make important changes. Although participants committed to cooperation, freedom, and trust cannot enforce these values coercively, they have a number of appropriate tools they may employ:

  • A moment of silence may be invoked to reestablish a collaborative focus.
  • Genuine questions may be asked to involve a disaffected person positively and to demonstrate respectful concern.
  • Inflammatory statements may be reformulated, qualified, or moderated to allow for greater understanding.
  • A person’s anger may be acknowledged empathetically as a reaction to real frustration or to a perceived threat
  • To reduce defensiveness, the expression of sadness or fear, rather than anger, may be encouraged as a fitting response to a negative event.
  • Participants may remind one another of their commitments to cooperation and consensus.
  • By learning together and by adopting shared definitions and expectations, a group may improve its ability to transform negative situations.

Consensus process is fundamentally different from conventional political deliberation. Without a group-wide understanding of these differences, and without commitment to to the required behaviors, the process will fail to bring unity.